Today in Feminist History: President Wilson’s Commitment to Suffrage (October 1, 1918)

Today in Feminist History is our daily recap of the major milestones and minor advancements that shaped women’s history in the U.S.—from suffrage to Shirley Chisholm and beyond. These posts were written by, and are presented in homage to, our late staff historian and archivist, David Dismore.

October 1, 1918: Today’s speeches by pro-suffrage Senators were as eloquent and impassioned as they had been during yesterday’s debate.

President Wilson’s commitment to the cause was undiminished, as he followed up yesterday’s speech to the Senate with personal letters to his fellow Democrats urging them in the strongest possible terms to vote for the Susan B. Anthony (woman suffrage) Amendment today. Unfortunately, the number of Senators pledged to oppose suffrage was also unchanged from yesterday, and the amendment failed to pass. 

Right up until the time the voting ended, Senator Andreus Jones, Democrat of New Mexico, the amendment’s chief sponsor, had hoped for some last-minute conversions. But when the roll was called, the tally stood at 54 to 30, two short of the 56-28 (two-thirds) majority that would have meant success. (Only a 2/3 majority of those present and voting is needed, not an absolute 2/3 majority of 64 out of 96 Senators.) Had all Senators been present and voting, our forces would still have been two votes short due to 34 being pledged to vote “no.” At the last moment, Senator Jones switched his vote to “no” so that he would be allowed to call the measure up for another vote if there was a more favorable outlook, because only someone who votes against a measure can ask for it to be voted on again. That made the official vote count 53-31, technically three short of victory, but with the measure still alive.

The original count was 27 Democrats in favor and 20 opposed (57% support) and 27 Republicans in favor and 10 opposed (73% support). Not one anti-suffrage Democrat heeded the President’s call to pass the Anthony Amendment as a “War Measure.” Even Majority Leader Thomas Staples Martin of Virginia, and others who have been prominent and vigorous supporters of the President’s other policies, deserted him today. 

The reason for such strong opposition by Southern Democrats is well-known, and was clearly illustrated by a proposal of Senator John Sharp Williams of Mississippi. He moved to re-word the Anthony Amendment so that it would authorize only white women to vote. The motion was overwhelmingly rejected by being tabled 61-22. That 22 of the original 30 votes cast against suffrage were by militant segregationists shows where much of the opposition is now coming from – and that they’re worried Congress might use the authority granted to it by Section Two of the suffrage amendment to vigorously enforce the voting rights of ALL women in ALL States. Suffrage leaders and Senate supporters should be commended for retaining the original race-neutral wording of the Anthony Amendment, and refusing to give in to demands that they abandon some women to enfranchise others. 

Today’s debate began with an accurate prediction by Senator Albert Baird Cummins, Republican of Iowa: “I fear that a little group of willful men are intent on bringing about the defeat of this amendment.” This was followed by a discussion of whether woman suffrage was truly a “War Measure.” President Wilson insisted yesterday that it was, because we are in a war for democracy, and there can be no better way for our nation to show its commitment to that cause than by enfranchising its own women citizens. 

Other than the “War Measure” issue, the debate covered nothing new, and changed no minds. Senator Knute Nelson, Republican of Minnesota, noted that: “This is not the first time the voice of the prophet has not been heard in the wilderness,” and Senator Cummins followed up with, “No, and I want to know how Senators who vote against this amendment are going to escape the consequences of it.”

Opponents were quick to praise the 34 Senators who were pledged to vote against the amendment as they celebrated its temporary defeat. According to Mrs. James W. Wadsworth, President of the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage:

“Our faith in the wisdom and integrity of the United States Senate is justified. We have held all along that if there is no desertion of fundamental principles we could not lose. There has been no desertion. In the face of a powerful lobby, false labels, political threat and pressure, thirty-four men in the United States Senate retained their sanity, stood by their convictions, upheld the principle of local self-government ‘to the last quarter of an hour.’ Millions of American women who admire courage and cherish convictions thank these Senators and are proud to be represented by such manhood. The legislative branch of the Government has retained its independence. The principle of self-determination, the constitutional right of each State to settle the question for itself by popular vote, has triumphed over every consideration of political ‘policy.'”

But many others think differently. Three-time Democratic Presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan was asked if he thought the Senate had disposed of the suffrage issue. He replied: 

“By no means. The President presented a powerful appeal and it will continue to bring pressure to bear upon opponents of suffrage through the responses the people will make to the President’s appeal. I expect to see the suffrage amendment submitted to the States before March 1 next… it must be remembered that the liquor interests have been the backbone of the opposition to suffrage in the North and that this influence will disappear with the ratification of the Prohibition Amendment… Taking the two influences together, I think there will be more than enough changes to give the necessary two-thirds.”

Alice Paul is as confident as Bryan of eventual victory:

“This defeat is only temporary. The vote of the Senate, we are convinced, will be reversed before this session of Congress ends. Our efforts to secure the reversal will begin at once and will continue until our victory in the House is confirmed by the Senate.”

Senator Jones says he intends to reintroduce the resolution at the first opportunity, and will call for a vote the moment he’s sure there are 2/3 in support. So, though victory in Congress proved elusive today, there is still time for victory in this session. Even if two votes cannot be switched in the present Senate, the midterm elections in November could produce a two-vote gain, and suffragists of all factions are now going to do everything possible to bring about that change. Despite today’s discouraging vote, it still appears to be only a question of whether the Anthony Amendment is approved and sent to the States for ratification by this Congress or the next one.


David Dismore is the archivist for the Feminist Majority Foundation. His journey from would-be weather forecaster to full-time feminist began with the powerful impression made by a photo and a few paragraphs about the suffragists in his high school history textbook; years later, he had his first encounter with NOW—in which he carefully peeked in a window before opening the door to be sure men were allowed. He was eventually active in the ERA extension campaign of 1978, embarked on a cross-country bikeathon for it in 1982 and even worked for pioneers Toni Carabillo and Judith Meuli.